Church Island on Lough Gill: its history and archaeology

Church Island, Lough Gill, County Sligo
View of Church Island (or Inis Mór) on Lough Gill, Co. Sligo (credit: © Hollywelltrees, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0; edited IHN).

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We explore the history, archaeology and folklore of Church Island, Co. Sligo.

Church Island (Inis Mór) is the largest island on Lough Gill which sits on the modern-day boundary of Counties Sligo and Leitrim. It was the site of an early ecclesiastical foundation and the island still preserves the ruins of a late medieval church, beside which is a graveyard and a curious monument called “Our Lady’s Bed”. In the early modern period, Our Lady’s Bed was frequented by pregnant women seeking protection or those wishing to become pregnant, but it is probably medieval in date and may have originally operated as a shrine or reliquary.

St Lomán and the early history of Church Island

Little is known about the early history of the ecclesiastical site on Church Island, though the founder is believed to be the 6th-century St Lomán. As well as his association with Sligo/Leitrim, the saint had foundations in Trim, Co. Meath and possibly in the Kildare parish of Tipperkevin.

There is some disagreement regarding his roots. According to the genealogies, Lomán son of Dallán belonged to the descendants of Colla Dá Chríoch of Orior in Armagh. Other early sources identify him as of British descent and one of St Patrick’s nephews. The 12th-century tract on mothers of Irish saints described Lomán as one of 15 bishop-sons of Dairearca, sister of Patrick, though the same text lists him among numerous children of Cuman, aunt of St Brighid of Kildare. Another text tells us that he met with St Columkille. The contradictory medieval sources therefore strategically link Lomán with the three most important Irish saints: Patrick, Brighid and Columkille.

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Church Island is located in the medieval parish of Calraighe (Calry). The parish was divided between the lordships of Cairbre and West Bréifne in the late medieval period, with Church Island being the patrimony of Uí Ruairc (O’Rourke).

Possible connections with religious orders

Church Island was by no means isolated in the medieval period and would have been easily accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the island location provided the perfect retreat where the spiritual ethos of a religious community could flourish. Several different religious groups were mentioned in the sources consulted.

Céli Dé

In 1791 Englishman Francis Grose visited the island as part of an archaeological expedition to Ireland. Grose believed that Church Island was associated with the “Culdees” or Céli Dé (literally “clients of God”), though he provides no evidence to substantiate this claim. The Céli Dé was an early medieval religious community that placed particular emphasis on charity, pastoral care, self‐discipline, poverty, prayer and strict asceticism.

In relation to the rituals surrounding pregnancy and protection connected with Our Lady’s Bed on Church Island, it is notable that the care of the sick was an important component of the duties of the Céli Dé. In addition, if Our Lady’s Bed had originally performed some sort of reliquary function, it is noteworthy that one of the roles of the Céli Dé was to guard access to relics. We will see that certainly by the late medieval period, the site was in possession of precious objects (perhaps these included venerated relics associated with early saints and holy individuals). The reliquary and protective focus on Church Island would have boosted the prestige and economic vitality of the place by attracting pilgrims.

Nuns

There is also a vague tradition linking the church site with a female order. A letter written in 1836 by Ordnance Survey researcher Thomas O’Conor stated: “Tradition says that this [Church Island] was a nunnery”.* Again there is no evidence to support this but the belief possibly stems from Church Island’s protective status for women and its long-established devotion to Our Lady.

>>> READ MORE: How Our Lady’s Bed on Church Island protected expectant mothers

Similarly, an entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection (c.1937) states that there was previously a community of nuns on the nearby Cottage Island, also on Lough Gill. In the medieval period, the church on Cottage Island was in fact a dependency of the Premonstratensian order based at Holy Trinity abbey in Lough Cé, Co. Roscommon. There is no definitive evidence supporting the claims that female orders resided on these two neighbouring islands on Lough Gill.

Cistercians

The evidence seems to suggest that in the late medieval period Church Island became a dependency of Boyle Abbey, Co. Roscommon. Boyle Abbey was founded in 1161 by the Cistercian order. Cistercian monastic estates were divided into granges (grangia), which were essentially self-contained farms sometimes located away from the monasteries.

Boyle Abbey, County Roscommon.
Boyle Abbey, Co. Roscommon (credit: © Enrico Strocchi, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The monastic estate of Boyle Abbey included an area called the “Grange of Cowlhenrie”, later known as “Coolera”.  Coolera is an area at the foot of Knocknarea which is bounded on the northeast and east by the Garvoge River and Lough Gill.

In a chancery inquisition of James I in Sligo, on 8 April 1606, the jurors found that Abbot Tomultagh McDermot of Boyle Abbey

“… was seized of one quarter, called the Graung of Sleight Brian … of another grangia with appurtenances, called the grange of Sleight Teigh O’Hart … of the town of Grainge, in the barony of Corran … of another grange called Grangemor, in Tireragh . . . and of one other grange, called Grangebeg, in the same barony.”

In a recent publication, archaeologist Geraldine Stout has demonstrated that this equates with the granges consisting of four quarters of land belonging to Boyle Abbey in the Composition of Connaught drawn up in 1585 by Sir John Perrot. Furthermore, Terrence O’Rorke writing at the end of the 19th century identified that “Graung of Sleight Brian” formed part of Coolera and encompassed Church Island.

It is possible that Boyle Abbey may have retained some beneficial interest in the Coolera area into the 16th century but the Cistercians no longer occupied their endowments there.

Another island on Lough Gill just 0.2km northwest of Church Island is called “Monks Island”. This placename was first recorded in the 19th century but it could be an old name indicating a relationship with the Cistercians on Church Island, given the very close proximity of the two islands.

The church building

The Papal Taxation of 1302–06 records a church named “Inismore” in Elphin Diocese; this is probably Church Island. It was valued at 10 shillings, which indicates a fairly modest building but by no means small. The medieval church building surviving today and the graveyard are located at the eastern end of the heavily wooded island.

Church on Church Island, Lough Gill, County Sligo.
View of the church from the south on Church Island, Lough Gill (credit: Magnumlady, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0).

This late medieval rectangular church was likely built under Uí Ruairc patronage, and probably replaced an earlier building(/s). It comprises two rooms, with the church proper to the east and a smaller room at the west end, directly above which is another chamber. It has been variously suggested that the room at the western end of the church at ground floor level may have functioned as a sacristy, library or scriptorium. Alternatively, if the island did indeed accommodate a nunnery as claimed by Thomas O’Conor, this room may have been used to separate the female community from the male clerics and congregation in the eastern part of the church. The dividing wall between the two rooms has a double opening or “squint”, which gives views into the main body of the church and the altar. The upper storey probably operated as the priest’s quarters and may have been accessed by a ladder. It too has an opening in the internal dividing wall, which overlooks the altar area.

A drawing by Angelo Maria Bigari of the church on Church Island, Lough Gill, County Sligo.
The church on Church Island (source: Grose, 1791, Antiquities of Ireland). This was taken from a drawing by Italian draughtsman Angelo Maria Bigari in the collection of William Burton Conyngham. It shows that the church was already roofless and partly ruined by the end of the 18th century.

Another notable feature is an inscribed stone in the internal frame of the entrance doorway of the church. The stone measures about 46cm in length. The engravings have been erroneously interpreted as ogham symbols in the past and this theory has been recently propagated on social media. However, if  William J. Fennel’s drawing of the engravings in 1904 can be considered reliable (pictured below), it appears instead that the carvings represent half uncial script and possibly the letters “MIRU[I?]”. The inscription could relate to a personal name with some letters now worn away or indecipherable.

Inscription on stone in church doorway on Church Island, Lough Gill, County Sligo.
Inscription on stone in the internal frame of the doorway in the south wall of the church on Church Island, Lough Gill (source: Fennel, 1904, Ulster Journal of Archaeology).

The Ó Ruaircs and contested lands

Lough Gill has a long history of being a contested borderland, as is common for marginal landscapes like lakes. In the early medieval period, it was part of the extensive Uí Ruairc kingdom of the powerful Uí Briuin Bréifne of West Bréifne. The influence of the Ó Ruaircs declined following the death of Thigearnán Ó Ruairc at the hands of Hugh de Lacy’s forces in 1172 AD at Cnoc Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) near Athboy, Co. Meath, sometimes referred to as Cnoc Uí Ruairc.

Lough Gill on the border of Counties Sligo and Leitrim.
Lough Gill on the border of Counties Sligo and Leitrim, c.1865–1914 (credit: Robert French, Lawrence Collection, © National Library of Ireland).

After this, the lordships of Upper Connacht and West Bréifne competed to control the Lough Gill region.

“Vast war broke out between Ualgarg O Ruairc and Ruaidri son of Cathal O Conchobair. They fought a battle at Calry, in which O Ruairc was defeated and all his gallowglasses were killed—that is to say, [those commanded by] Mag Buirrci and the son of Niall Cam—and most of his own followers were slain along with them. O Ruairc himself was pursued and killed the same day by Maelruanaid Mac Donnachada.” (Annals of Connacht, 1346)

From 1400 the Ó Ruaircs resided in a tower house at the northeastern shore of Lough Gill in the townland of Kilmore, Co. Leitrim. Known as Baile Nua (Newtown), it was destroyed by the family in the late 16th or early 17th century to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Much of the bawn surrounding the tower house survives today. In the early 17th century, Captain Robert Parke built a manor house on the site incorporating the bawn which he re-edified. The foundations of the tower house, its exterior ditch and outbuildings were excavated in the 1970s. The exposed tower house foundations were preserved in situ and can be viewed by visitors to Parke’s Castle.

Parke’s Castle, County Leitrim.
Parke’s Castle, Co. Leitrim, on the banks of Lough Gill, built in the early 17th century (credit: © John Darcy, via Geograph.ie, CC BY-SA 2.0). This was the site of the Ó Ruairc tower house.

The Ó Cuirnins, a service family of the Ó Ruaircs

The Ó Cuirnins were the chroniclers and ollamh in poetry and music for the Ó Ruaircs and they resided on Church Island. They were seemingly also the erenaghs or hereditary keepers (caretakers) of the island’s ecclesiastical treasures. The Annals of Connacht tell us that in 1416 the church was burned and

“O Cuirnin’s books, including the Lebar Gearr [Short Book] of the Muinter Cuirnin, and his splendid valuables, his ornamental cup, his timpe and his harp were burned in it.”

The Annals of the Four Masters also record this event and add that the “Screaptra ui Chuirnin” – probably a scriptorium or library – was also burned.

In 2012 Professor Elizabeth FitzPatrick suggested that this act was a result of the retraction of Uí Briuin Bréifne, leaving Church Island and the Ó Cuirnins exposed to attack by Connacht septs harrying the borderlands of West Bréifne.

Scandals in the parish

There is no evidence of re-inhabitation of the island by religious after the fire of 1416 but it continued as a place of worship in some capacity and was certainly used for burial. There are a small number of references to the island in papal letters in the decades following the fire. One such record for 1428 states:

“Mandate to collate and assign to Maurice Oconcabayr, canon of Killala, the rectory of rural lands of the parish church of Ynismoyr [Church Island] alias de Clocar [Clogher] in the diocese of Elphin, value not exceeding 8 marks, void because Malachy Oconhel, who is to be summoned and removed, after obtaining canonical collation, held peaceable possession of it for more than a year without being ordained priest, and has unduly detained possession of it, after the said year, for more than six years; notwithstanding that Maurice has been received by authority of the ordinary as a canon of Killala. Dignum etc.”

Yet more controversy followed; this time involving Maurice Ó Conchubhair, the very man who was assigned to the parish to rectify the last outrage. In 1440 Thady Mac Donnchaidh, clerk of the diocese of Elphin, informed the pope that,

“Maurice Oconcubayr, rector of Callri [Calry] or Innismoyr [Church Island] … has publicly kept for several years as his concubine a certain woman by whom he has had offspring …”

Later owners and occupants

Under the Acts of Settlement and Explanation, the “island of Inishmore [Church Island]” was granted to Philip Ormesby in 1667 by Charles II. The Ormsbys of Willowbrook and Annagh, Co. Sligo, had come from Lincolnshire originally.

Griffith’s Valuation tells us that in the mid-19th century the island was owned by Mrs Ormsby-Gore, whose vast estate included land in Counties Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo and Roscommon, as well as in England and Wales. Ormsby-Gore was leasing the island to John Wynne, an important landlord in the region who operated an extensive estate and resided at Hazelwood House on the western edge of Lough Gill. The Wynnes had established themselves in Sligo in the later 17th century and there they were a dominant force in political and economic life for two centuries.

At some point, the island was re-inhabited. There were nine inhabitants in 1821. Griffith’s Valuation records a “herd’s house” on the island but it does not list any island tenants. Nonetheless, it was certainly the home of the Gallagher family throughout much of the 19th century and the Gallaghers continued to live on the island into the first half of the 20th century.

1911 Census return, for Gallagher family on Church Island, Lough Gill, County Sligo.
1911 census return for the Gallagher family on Church Island, Co. Sligo (credit: © National Archives).

Sadly Edward Gallagher died in a tragic accident while felling trees in 1882 aged just 55; he left behind his wife and four children, all of whom were then residing on Church Island. The family were recorded in the 1911 census (pictured above): septuagenarian farmer Mrs Bridget Gallagher and three of her four adult children Mary Anne (31), Patrick (28) and Francis (24). Their three-roomed cottage was designated a 2nd-class house and they also had three outhouses: a cow house, a calf house and a dairy. An entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection dating to c.1937 notes that the island was still inhabited at this time. Our research has not revealed when this family finally left the island but the neighbouring Cottage Island was inhabited until 1949, when the last resident of Lough Gill died (Mrs Beezie Clerkin).

>>> READ MORE: The “Lady of the Lake”: Beezie and her island

The small old cottage (pictured below) belonging to the Gallaghers is still standing and was recently renovated by local fishermen to provide shelter for anyone should they require it during times of bad weather. This was no doubt prompted by the numerous drownings that have taken place in Lough Gill in recent times. Commemorative plaques on the island list the names of the deceased.

Cottage on Church Island, Lough Gill, County Sligo.
Gallagher’s Cottage on Church Island, Lough Gill.

Although it had continued as a place of burial for Calry parishioners long after the church community abandoned the island in the 15th century, by the time of the Schools’ Folklore Collection (c.1937) several entries indicate that it was no longer used for this purpose, though a small number of burials may have taken place there since. In September 2018, a Mass was said on the island for the deceased buried there. On the same day, a commemorative monument to mark the burial site was unveiled and blessed. The church site is a national monument in State ownership.

In recent times, Church Island has become known for a very different reason: it has been theorized that this island – and not Innisfree also located on Lough Gill – served as the true inspiration for WB Yeats’ most famous poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.

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Notes:

* We have interpreted “nunnery” here as a community of nuns or religious sisters. However, before the 19th century, this term could also be applied to a community of priests, religious brothers or monks. It seems likely that by the time O’Conor was writing, it was intended to refer to a female-only group.

Sources:

‘Abstracts of grants of lands … under the Acts of Settlement and Explanation, A.D.1666-1684’. In Appendix to Fifteenth Annual Report from the Commissioners of Public Records of Ireland.

Archaeological Survey of Ireland, RMPs LE010-037001; SL015-096001-; SL015-096003; SL015-097—-.[https://maps.archaeology.ie
/HistoricEnvironment]

Archivium Hibernicum: Or Irish Historical Records, volumes 21-23
. Catholic Historical Society of Ireland, 1958.

Calendar of Entries in the Papal Register relating to Great Britain and Ireland
.

Census of Ireland, 1911, ‘house 1 in Church Island (Lough Gill) (Calry, Sligo)’. [http://www.census.nationalarchives.
ie/pages/1911/
Sligo/Calry/Church_Island
__Lough_Gill_/756025]

Commissioners of Public Records in Ireland: Fourteenth and fifteenth reports with appendix
, 1824–25, p.161.

Dundalk Democrat and People’s Journal
, 21 Mar. 1885.

Fennell, W.J. 1904. ‘Church Island, or Inismore, Lough Gill’. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 10, pp. 166-69.

FitzPatrick, E. 2004. Royal Inauguration in Gaelic Ireland c.1100–1600. Woodbridge.

FitzPatrick E. 2012. ‘Formaoil na Fiann: hunting preserves and assembly places in Gaelic Ireland’. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 32, pp.95-118.

Foley, C., Donnelly, C. and Condit, E. 2013. Heritage Guide No. 62: Parke’s Castle, Co. Leitrim. Archaeology Ireland.

Fosbroke, T.D. 1817. British Monachism, or Mannners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England. London, p.39.

Griffith’s Valuation, 1848–64, ‘Parish of Calry’. [http://www.askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation/]

Grose, F. 1791. The Antiquities of Ireland. Vol. 1. M. Hooper: London, pp.58-9.

Landed Estates Database. [http://landedestates.ie/]

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Mac Niocaill, G. and Costello, M. A. 1959. ‘Obligationes pro Annatis diocesis Elphinensis’. Archivium Hibernicum. Vol. 22, pp.4, 9.

McParlan, J. 1802. Statistical Survey of the County of Sligo. Dublin, pp.103-04.

Ó Riain, P. 2011. A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Dublin.

O’Rorke, T. 1890. The History of Sligo: Town and County. Vols 1–2. Dublin.

Ordnance Survey Letters for County Sligo (1836). [http://www.askaboutireland.ie
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Schools Folklore Collection, vol. 0159 p.251; vol. 0161 pp.310-12; vol. 0199 pp.261-64, 441, 447
[https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes]

Sligo Champion
, 21 Oct. 1882.

Stout, G. ‘The Cistercian grange: a medieval farming system’. In M. Murphy and M. Stout (eds) Agriculture and settlement in Ireland. Dublin.

Sweetman, H.S. (ed.) 1886. Calendar of Documents, Ireland, 1302–1307. London.

Wood-Martin, W.G. 1882. History of Sligo, county and town, from the earliest ages to the close of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Vol. 1. Dublin.

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